By: Erin Ward & Heather Stuart
Worms will not eat living wood where the vital sap is flowing;
rust will not hinder the opening of a gate when the hinges are used each day.
Movement gives health and life.
Stagnation brings disease and death.”
– proverb in traditional Chinese Medicine
(“Thai yoga history,” 2013)
The origins of traditional Thai medicine remain as mysterious as the Thai people themselves. One popular theory suggests that the Thai people migrated from China around the 8th century C.E. With neighbors such as Burma, Vietnam, and Laos, their indigenous culture is sure to have been influenced by the outside cultures of their new surroundings. Consequently, traditional Thai medicine is extremely diverse, and is grounded in two traditions: the Folk tradition and the Royal tradition.
The Folk, or Rural, tradition consists of informal practices that have been passed through the ages in Thailand. Folk healers, who are educated through the verbal passage of information, may practice native massage, herbal medicine, tattooing, astrology, amulet-making, mediumship, exorcism, etc. These healers are not licensed, and this form of healing is not grounded in scientific thought. They guard their art fiercely, and, because of this, it is very difficult for outsiders to study the art of Folk healing.
The Royal, or Elite, tradition of Thai medicine was founded under the Thai kings of the 18th century. This standardized healing system is taught in the medical schools of Thailand, and is heavily dependent on Ayurvedic, Yogic, and Western influences of healing. Professionals of traditional Thai medicine will become proficient in herbal medicine and massage, and participate in a 3-4 year program to become licensed.
The key difference between these two traditions of Thai medicine is the way that they view health and illness. The Rural tradition holds a very strong spiritual influence, and believes in a spirit’s power to impact human wellness. The Royal tradition focuses on an inner battle between harmony and chaos, which reflects on the influence of Indian Ayurveda. No matter which tradition, Thai medicine focuses on a holistic approach to well-being, and incorporates the use of diet, exercise, herbal treatments, massage, yoga and a spiritually-aware lifestyle. These many components of health become the different “forms” of traditional Thai medicine.
One form of traditional Thai medicine is Thai massage, which includes body massages, acupressure, and stretching. Thai massage therapists usually do not just use their hands but other parts of the body such as the elbows, knees, and even their feet. Sen is the concept of energy lines that nourish the body with vital forces, and this energy is called lom in Thai. Traditional Thai medicine is centered on the belief that all bodies are sustained by these vital forces. These forces can be obtained from the air, water, or food, and disease of the body is believed to occur when disturbances occur along these pathways, blocking the body’s vital forces. Thai massage is meant to free this trapped energy. Massages are used as a medical treatment to help improve the circulation of your blood, relieve pain, and to help body movements. The Buddhist concept of Metta highly influences the Thai culture, in the fact that they are very loving, caring and respectful. Most Thai massages embody these concepts as well. Thai massage is not only a tool for physical well-being, but also a spiritual discipline focusing on mindfulness and loving kindness, or focused compassion.
Another form of Thai medicine is the use of herbs. Thai herbalists recognize the human elements which are water, fire, air, and earth, and they use herbs to restore balance in these elements. The wrap fresh herbs in a small piece of clothe and steam it so that the herbs produce an ointment. This ointment can be applied to a woman after she gives birth. Herbal treatments help to restore and detoxify the body, while also helping relax bodies and relieve muscle pains.
The most popular form of traditional Thai medicine is yoga. Thailand even has its own version of different yoga stretches. Yoga is used in Thailand to treat any imbalances in the body, mind and/or spirit. Thai yoga is usually taught in a spiritual practice and it works on bringing energy through the body by using different movements and stretches. Yoga was brought to Thailand by Buddhist monks from India. It started being practiced just in Buddhist temples, and then grew to be one of Thailand’s traditional forms of healing.
The founding father of Thai massage is an Ayurvedic doctor named Jivaka Buccha Komar. He is still revered throughout Thailand as the founding father of Thai medicine. As stated above, the native Thai people only passed their medical traditions down orally from generation to generation. The royalty of Thailand did make an effort to put their medical practices down on paper, but the Burmese destroyed all of those documents in 1767 when they invaded and destroyed the old capitol. However, in 1832 King Rama III made an effort to recreate these priceless documents, and they remain on display in the Wat Po temple in Bangkok to this day.
As people grow more and more dissatisfied with Western medicine, they turn to the past in an effort to reconnect with the modalities of holistic healing. Those who choose to educate themselves on the art of traditional Thai medicine will encounter its role in Thailand’s unique and diverse culture. In this way, traditional Thai medicine will continue to persevere throughout the ages, and influence not only Thai healing, but also healing throughout the world.